Raven’s Heart teaser–second chapter

Chapter 2 of my upcoming novel Raven’s Heart. Chapter 1 is in a preceding post.

TWO

 

Out of the corner of her eye, Cass saw a light flashing red in the living room. Her message crystal, and red meant urgent. She returned the paper to the table and tapped the crystal to activate it.

“Cass here.”

“Cass, have you and Raven seen the papers?”

Sherlock, Cass’s boss. Given name Abigail Andrews. Her crisp Anglan accent always became more pronounced when she was stressed. By the sound of it, something big was going down.

“Just now. We haven’t made it much past the headline.”

“It wasn’t Josiah,” she said. “The local Guardians managed to reach him. He thinks it must be the clerk who closed for him Saturday, but they won’t know for sure until the dental records come back.”

Cass breathed a little easier. The news was still horrible, but her job called for a certain objectivity about death. Had the victim been the quiet, little Mundane bookseller who had stood by them through the whole recent debacle with the Archmage, she would have lost that objectivity. As it was, the murder of one of Josiah’s employees in the bookstore where Raven spent so much time hit a little close to home.

“Anyway, the locals asked for you specifically. You and Raven. If this was William or one of his people, there’s a chance Raven might recognize the magical signature from the old days.”

From the old days, when Raven was William’s right hand.

“Raven’s here, too,” Cass said, feeling rather than seeing her lover moving to stand behind her. “Do they have reason to suspect William’s involvement?”

“The corpse was standing behind the counter, posed by stasis magic.”

William’s calling card. Raven swore softly.

“Who’s on the case from the locals?” Cass asked.

Though it made sense to bring Raven in, Guardians were seldom sensible when it came to Raven. Too much history. Nor were they particularly fond of bringing Guardian International Investigations in on what they considered to be their turf. She had not forgotten the time they had called Raven in, only to set him up for an arrest. She swore that would never happen to him again, not if she had anything to do with it.

“Rafe Ramirez,” Sherlock said.

Behind her, Raven let out the breath he’d been holding.

Not too long ago, Ramirez on the case would only have made them worry more. He was, after all, the one who had tried to arrest Raven at the Council building, and for a crime he knew Raven hadn’t committed. But he was one of those rare men who could admit when he’d made a mistake. He and Raven would never be friends, but they’d come to an understanding.

Ramirez was the only one beside the two of them who knew that Raven held the Ravensblood. Knew it because he’d, of his own initiative, smuggled the thing out of the evidence room and given it to Raven. She’d been in the hospital at the time, and Raven hadn’t talked about the circumstances beyond the barest of facts.

He’d also not mentioned the legal bills on his desk, the ones for Ramirez’s defense against corruption charges stemming from the Archmage affair. She knew them both well enough to know that, whatever passed between them, it had not been quid pro quo.

“We’ll be there,” Raven said. “Give me a minute to dress.”

It wouldn’t take him much more than that. While Raven normally tended toward slow, indolent mornings, he could be as quick and efficient as any Guardian when the situation demanded.

They teleported to the scene. Raven spent enough time in the bookstore to take himself to its doors as easily as to his own home, and Cass used him as an anchor to follow.

Rafe stood outside the shop, collar of his fashionably cut black leather jacket turned up against the wind.

“Ravenscroft,” he greeted as Raven approached.

Her lover stiffened for a moment, then smiled with false sweetness. “Raphael.”

Rafe Ramirez hated his full first name as much as Raven hated being addressed by his surname. Ramirez’s eyes narrowed a moment, but then he nodded in rueful acknowledgement of the touché.

Cass shook her head. Boys.

“You know what we have?’ Rafe asked both of them.

“Sherlock briefed us,” Cass said.

“Best get to it, then,” the Guardian said. “It’s pretty grim, but I know you’ve both seen a lot.”

He raised the yellow police tape for them to duck under, then opened the door to the shop.

#

The bell on the shop door jangled merrily, a sound Raven had heard so many times before. The unmistakable smell of burnt flesh hit him like a wall. Perhaps he should have been prepared for the scent, but nothing could have prepared for his body’s visceral reaction to it. His stomach lurched, and he had to grab a nearby bookshelf for support.

Gods, what was wrong with him? It was hardly his first time faced with a corpse immolated by magic. Times past, he’d been present for the deaths, heard the screams. Had he shown this sort of weakness before William, he’d have been the next victim.

Sympathy came from an unusual place. “It can hit you like that,” Ramirez said from beside him, “when it’s closer to home.”

And that was it, he realized. The juxtaposition of the worst of his old life with a place he associated with the contentment and safety of the new.

He nodded acknowledgement of Ramirez’s statement. Cassandra’s hand was on his arm in mute support.

“All right,” he said after a moment. “Let’s get this bastard.”

Ramirez led him forward, and he saw it. Horribly burned, flesh a mass of charred black and red. Posed by stasis magic behind the counter as if waiting to serve the next customer.

Raven shut down the thought that he might well have bought books from this very clerk on one of those rare days when Josiah had been away from the store. He focused instead on the reason he had been called in. The MO was very much William’s, but another had used it before to throw the Guardians off the track. He closed his eyes and felt for the magical signature. It was one he was well-familiar with.

“Bloody Eric,” he told Cassandra and Ramirez.

William’s cousin, and, with Raven’s defection, probably his right-hand man.

There would be only one reason for them to target a small, independent bookseller in the Nob Hill district. They knew about Josiah’s friendship with him.

Damn.

“I want the bastard,” Raven ground out.

Cassandra leaned closer. “Can you sense a teleport trail?”

She was right to be discreet. With this much time passed, sensing the teleport trail should have been impossible, even for him. And it would have been—were it not for the Ravensblood.

He closed his eyes, pushed away his rage and his horror, and focused.

“Faintly,” he said when he opened his eyes. “Local, I’m sure of it. It doesn’t have the feel of a long-distance teleport.”

“Can you get a fix on an end point?” Ramirez pressed.

Raven focused harder. Almost he had it. Almost. There—no.

“East of here, is all I can say. No further south, I think. Pearl District, maybe? “

“Is it that the trail has faded,” Cassandra asked, “or is the end-point warded?”

An important question. Bloody Eric might be powerful, even clever in his own, twisted way. But he was also reckless and impatient, and therefore less-skilled with wards. William, however, was paranoid and patient enough when it suited his needs. A master at ward-building.

“Warded, I think.” Raven shook his head in frustration. “Though I can’t swear to it. Not at this distance, and not with so much time passed.”

“All right,” Ramirez said. “That’s more than we had before, anyway.”

“Hopefully, no one will question how you got the information,” Raven said in a low voice.

“I doubt they will,” Ramirez said. “And if they do, I can drop your name without bringing the Ravensblood into it. Honestly, none of us over at the local Guardians really have a good fix on what you can and can’t do on your own.”

Raven frowned.

“Remember, it’s my neck as well as yours if they find out you have the Ravensblood,” Ramirez said.

True. For that reason, if no other, Raven had to trust his intent. Trusting his analysis was another matter.

He looked over to Cassandra, who shrugged. “It’s as safe as anything in our world.”

With nothing more to be done, Raven returned with Cassandra to their home. Breakfast no longer seemed appetizing. He borrowed the cell phone Cassandra kept for work to try to reach Josiah—Raven hated the things, but his of course Mundane friend could not use a message crystal. Chuckie, Cassandra’s work partner, had taught him how to use one during that debacle with the Archmage, and he had reluctantly used the skill a time or two since that crisis had resolved.

There was no answer. Josiah was either too busy, or too distraught to answer the phone. The book store was a small operation, and as Josiah had never married and had no children, his employees were like family to him.

Raven tried to recall who worked there, the polite young people who took his money and bagged his purchases when Josiah wasn’t about. There was the one with the goatee, the one with the earring, and the one with the ponytail. He didn’t even know their names, wasn’t sure which one of them had been killed. If he had been Cassandra or Chuckie, he would doubtless know their names, their favorite colors, and the names of their pets.

At his feet, Nuisance mewed and bit at his pants leg, demanding attention. With a sigh, he scooped her up and sat down with her, holding her against his chest to feel the rumble of her purr.

Cassandra had put water on to boil and was getting the tea things out. A behavior she had learned from her aunt Ana; when all else fails, make tea.

“I was so relieved when I found out it wasn’t Josiah,” he said, stroking a thumb over the kitten’s fur. “Does that make me a bad person?”

Cassandra left off fussing with tea to turn and give him her full attention. “Why would it?”

Someone is dead. Someone who doubtless had friends and loved ones. Does it make it any better that it’s not my friend?”

“No, not better.” Cass came to stand behind him, and started rubbing his shoulders. “But it’s natural to be glad that the ones closest to us are safe.”

#

Watching Nuisance trying to burrow her nose into Raven’s chest, Cass reflected how much her lover had changed. Once, such a question would never have crossed his mind, let alone troubled it.

“You realize,” Raven said in that carefully controlled voice that meant that he was hiding emotion he wasn’t ready to admit to, “That the targeting of Josiah’s shop was unlikely to be coincidence.”

She wished she could spout some reassuring nonsense, but she was a Guardian, and he would not respect her for pretending to be stupid. “I know.” She ached for him, wishing she could take at least some of the pain away.

He took a deep breath, and then another. “Josiah and his employees are Mundanes. They have no defense against magical attack. I should have realized. . .I never thought that by befriending Josiah, I was putting him and his staff in danger.”

It was Josiah who had befriended Raven, mostly by inching up to him sideways so he hadn’t seen it coming. She would always love the bookseller for that.

The sight of the store clerk’s charred body, the stench of burned flesh, had brought to the front of her mind too-vivid memories of finding Johnny Campos’s burned body on the porch, and the smell that seemed to linger for days.

She was so damned sick of innocent people dying! With Bloody Eric behind it, and most likely William as well, the body count would continue to rise until the bastards were stopped.

#

Later that afternoon, Josiah rang her cell, returning Raven’s call. The bookseller’s voice sounded thick, as though he had been crying. After offering her own condolences, she handed the phone to Raven. Though she could only hear his end of the conversation, she could guess the whole of it, Josiah accepting Raven’s condolences and assuring him that he was not to blame. Insisting that their friendship would not end over this.

Before the conversation had ended, the message crystal flashed urgent red. Her boss, Sherlock, calling her and Raven into a roundtable meeting on the renewed hunt for Bloody Eric and William. Though it was officially her day off, she expected the call. Likely they had given her that few hours’ respite only because she had been working the conference all last week.

No matter, she wanted the bastards; if only her body would allow her to go without sleep or food entirely until they were jailed or dead, she would do so gladly.

By the look in Raven’s eye and the set of his jaw, he felt the same.

They faded in just outside the teleportation barrier outside the offices of GII. As they strode through the lobby, seasoned agents who had survived countless firefights saw Raven’s expression and backed away, no doubt thanking the gods that he was now on their side. She took the stairs at a jog, Raven just behind her. They didn’t slow until they reached the Cascades Conference Room. It was, in fact, the same conference room they had used the day the theft of the Ravensblood had been discovered. Raven had not been an official consultant then, and the night had ended with him being accused of the theft and fleeing arrest. If he had made the connection, he didn’t show it.

“Cass, Raven, thanks for coming.” Ramirez looked up as they entered. “Ms. Andrews stepped out on another emergency, but she should be back soon.”

Cass wondered how long he would persist in calling Sherlock by her legal name. Ah, but then he’d never seen her boss with her pipe. It really did complete the image begun by the tweed and the Anglan accent.

If the murder had been discovered late last night, Ramirez was running on less rest and less real food than she was, but she didn’t think that was the sole reason for the pallor beneath his golden-tan coloring. That the local Guardians had voluntarily requested the aid of GII meant that they were desperate indeed.

“I’m not sure if you’ve met Brad Donovan, my partner,” Ramirez continued.

Donovan looked in even worse shape although that could be because his orangey-red hair highlighted the grayness of the skin below. His shoulders stiffened when his gaze fell on Raven behind her.

Too bad, friend. He’s on contract with GII. If you don’t like it, you know where the door is.

Ramirez pushed the half-empty Voodoo Doughnuts box her way. She selected one shaped like a voodoo doll, stabbed it with its pretzel stick, and watched the red jelly ooze out before decapitating it in a neat bite. Raven stared at her in vague horror.

“There’s normal ones, too,” she encouraged. “”The lemon crullers are quite good.”

He eyed the box with suspicion. “Thank you, no.” He turned to Ramirez. “Do we have anything more to go on?”

“Not much. The stasis spell used to pose the corpse may keep the magical signature of the magefire from fading, but it makes time of death damned hard to determine, as I’m sure you know.”

Once, that last bit would have been spoken as insinuation, if not outright accusation, but now it was mere fact, one that Raven dipped his head to acknowledge.

She didn’t know how many deaths he had been responsible for in his days as William’s right hand, nor if he had any involvement in the placement of William’s grisly calling cards. Nor did she want to know. Ever.

“Since the clerk was still in the store, and since there was no sign of forced entry, we have to assume the attack came during normal store hours,” Ramirez continued.

“Josiah’s stays open two hours longer than any of the neighboring stores on Friday nights,” Raven said.

“Yes, thank you, I do know how to do preliminary research,” Ramirez snapped.

“Indeed,” Raven said, unruffled. “Go on.”

It was not an apology, but neither was it a counter-attack.

“Given that nobody in the stores on either side reported noticing anything unusual, it most likely happened in those last two hours.”

“Obviously,” Raven drawled.

Cass kicked him under the table, reminding him to behave. “How was the body discovered?”

“Mundane police cruiser was passing through the neighborhood, saw lights on where there shouldn’t be, and went to investigate,” Rafe said. “It’s possible that the original target was the store owner. It was his normal shift, but his clerk wanted the next day off to go to some concert at the Alberta Rose, and so they switched shifts.”

Cass heard the sharp intake of Raven’s breath as he was reminded how close it had been for Josiah.

“Unless, of course, it was purely random,” Donovan put in. “Eric Blanchard was known for random attacks on civilians, particularly Mundane and Craft, during William’s last bid for power.”

“It was not random,” Raven growled. “Josiah is a friend of mine.”

“You have friends?” Donovan cut in.

She’d dealt with his kind of self-righteous twits back before her promotion. Ramirez, bless him, jumped in before Raven could snark back. “Brad, whatever his past, Raven is here as a consultant for GII, and you will either give him the respect he deserves or I will have our captain reassign you for the duration of this case.”

Donovan dropped his gaze. “Yes, sir.”

Nice command tone there; Ramirez brought the pup to heel without raising his voice. Of course, Ramirez had the advantage. His captain would have no doubt offered him a change of partners as soon as they realized the seriousness of the case. Donovan looked young, and was probably green as spring grass. Ramirez, for whatever reason, wanted to keep him on it. Perhaps he saw potential in the young man, or perhaps he was having difficulty with his colleagues. He had been reassigned since the Archmage affair, but of course everyone would know how close he had come to being kicked out of the Guardians altogether. How close he had come to ending up in jail.

She hoped, for Ramirez’s sake, that none of his colleagues knew who had paid his lawyer.

“Do we have anything else?” Cass asked to bring the conversation back on track.

“We asked for footage from any of the surrounding stores that have security cameras,” Rafe said. “We came up with this from the antiques place two doors down.”

He slid a grainy still toward them. Cass reached out and turned it right way ‘round.

“We’re pretty sure the tall one is Eric,” Ramirez said.

Even though the quality was poor, she could make out the elegant, old-fashioned dress, the luxurious curls. What could have been a flaw in the picture was more likely the extensive scarring on the right side of his face from their last encounter.

“I’ve known Eric since we were children,” Raven said. “That’s him.”

Donovan frowned at the casual reference, but Ramirez merely nodded at the expected conformation. “We were hoping you could tell us more about the person with him.”

There was a gangly figure at Eric’s side. A half-step behind, which allowed the camera to catch his face as well. Hard to make out any details, but if she had to guess she’d peg him somewhere between a mature sixteen and a young twenty. With the same curly hair as Eric’s.

She looked up at Raven. “Does Eric have a son?”

“None that he has acknowledged, at least not that I heard. He and I were not exactly close.” He frowned. “It’s possible, though. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Eric was sloppy with contraceptive magic, and if the lady in question was likewise careless. . .It’s possible.”

She wondered if he was thinking about their own unplanned conception, of the life ended before it began when the Archmage’s Hammerhand spell struck her full force. Though they had been careful, there had been extenuating magical circumstances of which they’d been unaware at the time.

“Next question,” Ramirez said. “If Josiah’s Books was targeted because of the owner’s association with you, we need to know who else might be a target.”

#

It took Raven a moment to realize that Ramirez was asking for a list of his friends. Once, it would have taken a significant and believable threat of force before he allowed such an invasion of his privacy. Once, the list would have been either incredibly short, or non-existent.

“Cass, of course,” he said.

“Of course,” Ramirez agreed.

His tone said don’t treat me like an idiot. Despite the grimness of the conversation, Raven managed a half-smile.

“Sherlock,” he added after a moment’s thought. “But they are less likely to go after either of them, at least until they have run out of easier targets. The same goes for Ana. She taught William’s father a healthy dose of caution in the Mage Wars, and William will not have forgotten.”

Though in other respects, Ana would be a prime target, both as Cassandra’s aunt and as the person responsible for negotiating a pardon for Raven in exchange for his betrayal of William. The thought of Eric picking off the people close to him left him with a sick feeling deep in his gut.

“Other than that, it’s hard to say. It depends on how much William knows about my associates. He’s almost certainly the one behind this, with Eric just his trained attack dog. The fact that Josiah was the first targeted suggests that he is going after personal, not professional contacts, but he might not limit himself. I usually have dinner with Madeline Love at least once when she is performing in town.”

“Madeline Love?” Donovan asked.

“Opera singer,” Raven said. “Famous in the arts and culture community. I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of her.”

“Stop baiting my partner.” Ramirez said it in the same tone one might use to request someone to stop leaving the door open as it caused a draft. “Anyone else? Chuckie?”

“Maybe. We’ve worked together a few times. And of course he was instrumental in helping me prove my innocence in the theft of the Ravensblood.”

“Of course.” Ramirez’s eyes darted away.

Raven had no interest in flogging the man for past crimes; Ramirez did a good enough job of it himself.   “As to others, he might target other GII members of the Wing who worked with me last year.

“The MacLeans I would worry about more if they weren’t all in Australia. Neither Mick nor his boys are easy targets, not by a long shot, but I’m not sure William would know that. However, I doubt William and Eric are going to travel half-way around the world to prove their point.

“Then there are any number of agents of GII I’ve worked with. It might be easier to get the list from Sherlock than rely on my memory. Generally, I am more interested in solving the puzzle than paying attention to the people around me.”

“Why does that nor surprise me?” Donovan sniped.

Raven merely smiled as though he had been complimented, deliberately baiting the man. “Then there’s the handful of agents from the pub nights Chuckie finally dragged me to.”

“Pub nights?” Ramirez raised an eyebrow, clearly amused.

“Yes, well.” Now it was his turn to look away. “There were only the two times. Three maybe. Because Chuckie insisted.”

And because he could not deny his debt to the annoyingly cheerful geek mage that Cassandra had somehow managed to end up with as a partner. And, because Chuckie did grow on one, though Raven would die before he admitted it.

Ramirez barely stifled a chuckle. “I’m just trying to picture you in a pub. Doesn’t GII usually hang out at the Barley Mill?”

“Usually, yes. If I am to accompany them, however, I insist on the Blue Moon. Though both are, I understand, owned by the same brothers, the Blue Moon has a certain understated elegance that I find acceptable.”

Ramirez shook his head. “Corwyn Ravenscroft in a MacMenamin’s pub. Will wonders never cease.”

“I believe we are straying somewhat from the topic,” Raven said.

“Yes, right. I’ll get the list of agents who worked cases you consulted on from Sherlock. And I’m guessing that Chuckie has a better idea of who was at pub nights. Just in case they do decide to go after your drinking buddies.”

Ramirez said the last phrase with particular relish. Raven suspected he would be hearing about this for a long time to come.

“The thing we need to do is find William and Eric,” Raven said. “Rather than sitting around twiddling our thumbs and wondering when they are going to strike next.”

“You have any ideas on how to do that, you just let me know,” Ramirez said.

“I doubt he’s had the time to build the strength and resources for a hidden sanctuary like he had before.” Raven said. “My guess is that he’s holed up somewhere in North Portland. If I only could have managed a clearer trace on Eric’s teleport.” He ground his teeth in frustration.

“I’ll get Chuckie on doing a search for any homes in the area with ownership that might trace back to William or Eric Blanchard. If the Archmage was clever enough to hide his ownership through holding companies and the like, I wouldn’t put it past William.”

“What I want to know,” Ramirez said, pinning Raven with his gaze, “is can you take him?”

Beside him, Donovan made a choked noise of protest.

“The man is too dangerous to hold.” Ramirez answered Donovan’s objection, but his eyes were still on Raven. “We both know it. I doubt anyone on the Joint Council is going to call for an inquiry if William winds up dead rather than in custody

Raven rather doubted it as well. The Pro Tem Archmage had been on the front lines during the Mage Wars and had seen up close and personal what a mage like William could do. Mother Crone, with her Craft practicality, would weigh the greater good over rhetoric and the Mundane President was justly terrified of what would happen to his community if William ever achieved the rule absolute that was his goal.

Or that had been his goal the last time around. He lacked the power base now to achieve such a goal; surely even William in his madness must see that. This time, he must be after pure revenge. Which might make him even more dangerous, since he had little left to lose.

Ramirez leaned forward, deadly serious now. “My question remains. Can you take him?”

On one hand, he had the Ravensblood. And William might still be badly weakened from their last encounter.

On the other hand, William had had several years to recover. And Raven had barely won the last time.

He gave them the only answer he could. “Gods, I hope so. For all our sakes’.”

 

 

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